ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 11/03/09
Science fiction was born of religion. Stop! Don’t flip to the next essay . . . let me explain.
There’s a reason we love fantastic stories. It’s that we want fantastic experiences. We want them so much that we’ll take them in as many ways as we can get—through our own experiences, through stories of other peoples’ lives, even through experiences we invent. This desire for the fantastic finds constant connection to those impulses we term “religious.” Sometimes the connections are obvious, and sometimes they’re convoluted, but they’re deeply woven throughout the very fibers of the Haloverse.
Consider, for example, the story of Dr. Halsey, a character insignificant in the Halo games but important in the books. Her subplot deals with the question of ethics in science. From the outset, she questions the morality of using mechanical technology, bioengineering, and behavior modification to transform a group of children into advanced killing machines christened the Spartan IIs. She has to purposely withdraw from the children emotionally, refusing to call them by name and, instead, referring to them as “test subjects” (The Fall of Reach 26, 30–31). In addition to taking them away from their parents, Dr. Halsey turns the children into warriors, then into enhanced superhumans, a process that leaves half of them dead or deformed (60–62). At one point in the story, even Cortana wonders, “Was Dr. Halsey a monster? Or just doing what had to be done to protect humanity? Perhaps a little of both” (270). Halsey attempts to play the odds, pretend to be scientifically objective (i.e., act without human heart), and assume the Frankensteinian role of man playing God. Frankenstein was subtitled The Modern Prometheus, and it’s from there that we gather the connection between “hard science” sci-fi and the religious impulse.
Prometheus, the only god among the Titans to side with Zeus and the Olympians, gave mankind fire—that’s the part of the story that everyone knows. What many don’t know is that Prometheus also gave humanity techné, the practical arts. Techné, or technology, became the divine gift that offered the means for us to make our lives matter. In technology we find our godhood, and we also run into the limitations of our humanity.
But technology without humanity cannot save us. Something divine calls us to draw limits to our attempts to replace God with ourselves, and the results of such god-play through techné are always the same: Faustus loses his soul to Satan, Frankenstein creates a monster, and, in a sadly prophetic example of life imitating art, Oppenheimer created the A-bomb, proclaiming humanity’s horrid self deification when he quoted from the Hindu myth (I don’t know how to create a comment bubble for a comment bubble and so am just writing my response here and will ask you to delete it: I’m following C. S. Lewis’s idea of myth here; that myth can speak truth. Thus I tell people that I live under the Christian myth—a vision for looking at reality as a whole—one I just happen to also believe is the myth that became fact. At any rate no demeaning of Hinduism was intended, quite the contrary. But if you think that the word will be misunderstood, feel free to substitute a word like “story” or “text’): “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Technology makes the Borg (like Darth Vader) “more machine than man,” and the Forerunners create the Halos to contain the Flood. Their reward for this grand, almost divine achievement is their own extinction. Dr. Halsey finds the limits of technology in her recognition that she should have been concerned with compassion, love, and saving lives (First Strike 245) rather than rising above such apparent human frailties.
Science fiction and science itself are inextricably intertwined with our religious impulses. The connection between our own divine spark and our pursuit of technology links back, beyond the rise of science at the height of an utterly Christian Europe, to the earliest stories of human creation and achievement. There is an experience for which we hunger—have hungered for since the beginning of humanity. We use words for it like awe, wonder, mystery, or romanticism. We call it a desire for transcendence, the wholly Other, the Divine—God.
So-called realistic stories are new to human history—only a few hundred years old. The earliest human stories were the great myths of which we remain aware today, tales of divine experience and human encounters with gods. There were no other stories worth telling. These were followed in